Tulare County unemployment rate reaches near record high

Tulare County has lost over 38,000 jobs from a year ago, 28,000 in last six weeks; but faring better than much of the state

TULARE COUNTY – The unemployment rate for Tulare County was not a record high in April but it was an unprecedented fall.

Since recording one of the lowest unemployment rates last fall, Tulare County has seen its rate jump to one of the highest ever in a matter of months. In September 2019, Tulare County’s unemployment rate dropped to 7.6%, the third lowest since the state began tracking the county’s unemployment in 1990, second only to a record low of 7.1% in May and September 2006. The county’s April unemployment rate was 19%, almost double what it was a year ago at 9.9%, and the highest since 19.2% in March 2011. In the last year, Tulare County has lost 38,000 jobs, with 28,000 of them coming in the last six weeks.

“This is the most dramatic individual monthly report we’ve ever seen,” said Adam Peck, executive director of the Tulare County Workforce Investment Board, which connects workers and employers with services. “There’s never been a shift of this amount in a single month.”

Peck had forecasted a near record unemployment rate of 21% for April, higher than the fallout from the 1998 freeze of 20.7% and second only to 24.4% in March 1991 following the 1990 freeze. The only reason the rate didn’t climb that high, is that the overall labor force has shrunk by 2% from last year, Peck said.

The hardest hit industries were leisure and hospitality. Bars, restaurants and hotels cut 3,700 jobs in April, which accounts for a one-third loss from a year ago. That’s by far the worst loss in the local industry on record shattering the previous mark of a 6.8% loss in January 2001.

Retail was another industry that was expected to take the brunt of the economic shut down. Retail trade was down just 5% and retail warehousing and transportation was down just 1.4% before it was allowed to reopen.

“The broad losses in retail that was shut down were in some ways offset by the increases in the places that were still open,” Peck said, referring to grocers and retailers such as Costco, Save Mart, Target and Walmart.

Business owners who felt the biggest impact were in the personal care industry. The sector is lumped together with churches, industrial and automotive but most of the 20% decrease in jobs came from the shutdown of hair and nail salons, barbers shops and massage therapists, which lost 600 jobs in Tulare County.

The good news, Peck said, is that Tulare County is doing better in comparison with the state overall. While Tulare County’s unemployment rate nearly doubled from last year, the statewide unemployment rate nearly tripled from 5.5% to 15.5%, within four percentage points of Tulare County’s 19%.

“We’ve never been that close to the state average,” Peck said. “The pain here is real, but not nearly as much in terms of the rest of the state.”

Tulare County is consistently among the top three highest unemployment rates in the state, but in April Tulare County had a lower unemployment rate than eight other counties including Monterey (20.2%) and Los Angeles (20.3%).

“When Monterey and LA County have higher unemployment rates than Tulare County that’s a whole new world for us,” Peck said. “In relative terms, other places have been hit harder.”

Peck said Tulare County has been insulated from some of massive job losses because many of its largest industries are deemed essential. The county’s largest employment sector is local and state government, followed by trade, transportation and utilities and education and health services.

The only industry to see an increase over the last year was educational and health services. Not surprisingly, health services added 1,000 jobs through February of this year, but cut 700 jobs from March to April as health care organizations are forced to send people home after building up for a medical surge that never happened. Tulare County did see a small recovery in professional and business services, about 100 jobs from March to April, but was still down 1,200 jobs from April 2019.

Unemployment claims spiked to a record high of nearly 7,000 on March 28, compared with a weekly average of about 500 leading up to March, and then continued with thousands more in the following weeks. More than 5,500 filed by April 4, another 4,100 on April 11, 3,200 on April 18 and 2,100 on April 25. There was another surge of 3,500 claims on May 2 followed by another historically high number of 2,300.

The most surprising change was in an area that most thought had been relatively unaffected by job losses. Total farm jobs were down 28% from last year, which would already have taken into account seasonal adjustments. That’s the largest shift in ag since jobs in the sector fell 19.5% in June 2004.

“I did not see that coming,” Peck said. “I thought ag was going to be the saving grace. We don’t know yet where that shift came from.”

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